“Lydia, it’s so raw outside, and I’m afraid I’m getting a cold,” Mamm told her late Tuesday afternoon, the day after Lydia and Sandra had been to Wooster. She did, Lydia thought, sound nasal and had been blowing her nose, though sometimes she thought Mamm had private crying bouts and sounded like that, anyway.
“I know you’re heading for the animal barn,” Mamm said, “but could you take these four loaves of bread outside to Mattie Esh for the Stark funeral?”
Although Lydia had overheard that some local Amish women referred to her mother as “Sad Susan,” Mamm was also known in the community for her generous gifts of what most outsiders called Amish friendship bread. She gave loaves of it away for Christmas gifts and anytime the church had a special event. Even the local Englische knew to look for it in her plain brown wrappers at Amish benefits and yard sales.
But Mamm kept the starter yeast mix and recipe to herself. Lydia had once asked why, when the sharing of those things was part of the idea of friendship. Her mother had simply said that the bread alone was her gift to her people. But Lydia came to believe the cinnamon-crunchy sweet bread was Mamm’s way of trying to make up for a tart tongue and sour outlook on life. And Mamm’s sending anything to the Starks surprised Lydia, though Mamm often contributed bread to local funerals.
Pointing out the window, Mamm went on, “Mattie and Anna Kauffman are buggying up the lane right now, see? Since I’m on the church list to donate bread for local events, I could hardly say no when the Starks, living next door all these years, have a family funeral—which I wish you were not attending, you and Josh.”
“Mamm, we’re honored to represent the Amish community. Sure, I’ll take the bread out to them, then just head over to Josh’s. I’m going to walk through the woods because Flower got chilled waiting for me in the store barn all day.”
“Flower! You and your animals. Here, the bread’s in this sack.”
“And smells wonderful, as usual!” Lydia lifted the sack and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. She had tried very hard since yesterday to be affectionate toward both her parents. After all, they’d taken her in after the tragic death of her birth parents. They had treated her as their own when she’d lost David and Lena Brand...David and Lena... She loved to recite their names to herself. Lydia wondered what else Sandra might have found, cross-checking other sources, as she’d put it.
In the mudroom, she quickly donned her bonnet and warmest cape—the one she’d placed over poor Victoria Keller—stuffed her feet into boots and tied a woolen scarf around her neck. She yanked her gloves on, picked up the sack of fragrant bread and hurried outside. Lacy snowflakes sifted down, but they didn’t seem to be piling up fast. The two women, Mattie Esh, the bishop’s wife, and one of her good friends, were in a large family buggy.
“Hello, Mrs. Esh and Mrs. Kauffman,” Lydia greeted them. As she lifted the sack to Mrs. Kauffman, she saw the backseats were full of baskets and bags. “Oh, my, what a lot of food!” she blurted.
Mrs. Esh told her, “The church really wanted a special outreach to the Starks to show our love and concern for them.”
“And not because Connor is mayor now,” Anna Kauffman added with a sharp sniff. “Nor because Bess Stark has worldly political power. But we want to extend the right hand of fellowship to those who seem trapped in the world’s ways. Speaking of hands, we could use an extra couple of strong ones to unload, sure we could. Lydia, can you ride along with us next door to help drop these things off? It won’t take long, and we’ll bring you back home.”
Though she was eager to head over to Josh’s, she told them, “Ya, of course, I’d be glad to help.” She climbed up in the buggy and held the sack of still-warm bread in her lap so she could fit on the second seat.
Mrs. Esh turned the buggy around, and they headed back down the lane. “How are Hannah’s twins, Mrs. Esh?” Lydia asked. Her daughter Hannah had gone to the world for a while to pursue a singing career, but had returned home, wed Amish and sang now only at their weddings.
“Big for their ages, and lungs strong like Hannah’s. They will be two strapping boys, Lord willing. You know, she sings to them all the time. Hannah’s little adopted four-year-old girl, Marlena, is a big help.”
Oh, ya, that’s right, Lydia thought. Hannah had more or less adopted Marlena when she married the widowed Seth Lantz, but Seth was the girl’s real father, so she’d never actually been orphaned. And Lydia just bet Hannah and Seth told their little girl all about her real mother and didn’t try to ignore or hide the truth.
“And how is your daughter Sarah doing?” Lydia asked Mrs. Kauffman. A noted Ohio artist, Sarah had been shunned for painting the faces of people she knew and for wedding an outsider. But Lydia knew the Kauffmans still saw her and her husband and their little daughter from time to time. What would happen when Mamm and Daad finally learned that their own daughter had defied them?
“Sarah’s doing good but should still stop painting faces for her work,” Mrs. Kauffman said, and Lydia realized that was that.
Soon they were buggying past the rows of Christmas trees the Starks sold this time of year. The big banner was up over the lane that led a short way to the barn where they bundled their yearly crop of firs and pines, the short-needled ones barely dusted with snow, others bowing their branches under its weight. Those who lived near the tree farm knew it was almost a year-round task to care for the trees. The seedlings were planted mid-April, and shearing and shaping went on through the hot months of June and mid-July. In the late autumn, skilled workers with rotary pruners trimmed the trees which went on sale late November and December. The familiar banner read, Stark Choose-and-Cut Christmas Tree Farm. Open Now to Christmas. Hay Rides, Cider, Cocoa Free.
More rows of trees, some tall, some growing for future years, sped past Lydia’s gaze. The Starks had twenty-five acres of trees, just the right size farm, she’d heard, for a family to run with only seasonal help. She had not been at the Stark house for years, not since Mamm had laid down the law about her visits there. The fragrant, crisp scents of blue spruce, Fraser fir, Scotch and white pine vied with the smell of the bread in her lap. The rows of trees wrapped around the slant of the hill on which the Stark mansion perched. When it was lighted at night, Lydia used to think the house was like its own star atop a giant tree.
The horse team pulled the big buggy easily up the lane, since it wasn’t slippery. Years ago, the Starks had put some sort of heating pipes under the pavement, so the snow and ice melted off. It sure saved a lot of shoveling. Who knew what wonders were to be found in their house itself after all these years.
At the side door, they unloaded their goods, met not by a family member but by a woman in a canvas apron. “Hi, I’m Jenny from the caterer’s,” she told them. “What wonderful gifts. Perhaps we can have an entire Amish table at the funeral, and the family will be so grateful. Senator Stark’s in town with her daughter-in-law, but Mr. Stark is out in the trees somewhere. They will all be delighted. How kind of you.”
The three of them and Jenny carried the baskets and boxes of food inside to a pantry area with Jenny’s continued thanks. From the vantage point of the side porch, Lydia could see that Connor was not down by the barn, with the other seasonal workers, but in a row of about five-foot trees on a slant of the hill overlooking her house. She would, of course, have a chance at the funeral tomorrow to tell him she was sorry for his loss, but he’d be busy with other people. He’d been so upset that night they found his aunt in the snow.
“If you don’t mind,” she told Mrs. Esh, “I’ll just walk back to my house. Cutting down the hill will be much shorter.”
“Of course, my dear, and we thank you for the help, we surely do. We will be in prayer tomorrow that you and Josh Yoder will represent our people well at the funeral.”
“Danki,” she told them. “I appreciate all the prayer support I can get.”
“Lydia’s late,” Sandra told Josh when he came back to the house to see how she was doing. She was sitting at his dining room table still typing away on her laptop about, he guessed, Old Amish Christmas. “She’s not in the barn, is she? I’d rather go over a battle plan with her in here.”
“A battle plan?” Josh said as he poured himself a mug of the now-tepid cider he’d left for Sandy and Lydia. He threw his coat over his chair and sat across the table from her. “You still have a lot to learn about our ways.”
“Our meaning the Amish, or you and Lydia? I can see you care for her, and she— Let’s just say the same.” As if they were making a toast, she leaned across the table to clink her cider mug to his.
“Lydia’s just the tomboy next door who grew up,” he countered.
“And so doesn’t know her own power over men yet? But you do, right, and you’re very surprised. Besides, you sound defensive, my friend. By the way, you know what she asked me?”
“I’m afraid to hear it. She really cuts to the heart sometimes.”
“Touché. She said since I didn’t like animals, why was I at the zoo in Columbus where you and I met?”
“Ya, I did mention that. So you told her you got the ticket free and as a starving grad student couldn’t turn down wine and a buffet?”
“I told her I was hunting for a rare beast to study and I found one. No, don’t look at me that way. I told her grad students seldom get invitations like that, and I was always up for a new adventure, at least at a place where the animals were all in cages. She also asked me why I didn’t like animals— Was I afraid of them because of something that happened to me when I was young? You never asked me that. Lydia’s bright and perceptive. You’d think she was a soc or psych major, for heaven’s sake!” she said, leaning back in her chair and closing her laptop.
“She’s a rare one, exotic in her own way,” Josh said. “Good with animals and good with people. Most girls—young women—who weren’t being told about their real parents by their adoptive ones wouldn’t be so careful not to hurt them, at least I think so.” He leaned forward in his chair. “But did something happen in your past that kept you from liking animals, at least some animals?”
Sandra jumped up from the table and started to pace, dining room to living room and back with jerky steps. “I wish I had a cigarette or a drink,” she muttered, wrapping her arms around herself as if she were cold.
“I’m proud of you that you gave up smoking, and cider’s the strongest thing I have in the house.”
“I wasn’t being serious! But—but yes, I once closed a closet door on my brother’s puppy when I was about six. I—I smashed his head, and he yelped and cried and I felt horrible when he died. I ran and hid in the basement, but had to face up to what I’d done. I swear, my brother hated me for months after that—years—and nothing my parents said about it being an accident made things better for me.”
She sniffed hard and strode away again. “The thing is,” she said, her voice shaky and almost choked, “I think I meant to do it— I mean, looking back at it now, analyzing, playing my own shrink. Grandpa had given that dog to him, not me, and everyone was fussing over it. I was the first born, used to be the family princess, and then here came my brother and everyone doted on him...
“Oh, damn—sorry,” she blurted out, but he wasn’t sure if the ‘sorry’ was for swearing or for telling him her painful story. “You just heard true confessions about what an idiot I was—still am.”
He stood and snagged her arm when she passed again, hugged her awkwardly with one arm around her shoulders. “We all have things in our past that haunt us. Look at Lydia, even me.”
“You? Such as what?”
“I agonized over jumping the fence, you know, leaving home to pursue my dream of working at a zoo for several years. I hurt my mother. I’m regretful to this day that her grieving, even though I hadn’t yet joined the church and so wasn’t shunned, probably made her cancer worse and hastened her death. And that I was too late getting a ride back here and didn’t get to say a final goodbye. But you’re not going to hurt animals ever again, or be hurt by them, and my mother needed to accept my dreams, even if they weren’t to work the fields and milk cows with Daad and my brothers.”
She pulled away and blew her nose. “That— You helped me. Lydia did, too, like you say, cutting to the heart of things. You know what? I have a bumper sticker I should put on the back of the car that says, I Brake for Squirrels. I do, really. Now, camels and donkeys, I don’t know, but maybe later, sometime while I’m here, I’ll go out to the barn with you or Lydia. Now, what in the world is keeping her?”
“You been up to the house?” Connor called to Lydia as she approached him down a row of white pines that were not quite as tall as he was. Next year’s trees, she guessed. “My mother’s in town with my wife.”
“I heard. I was just helping some of our women deliver food for the funeral and thought I’d walk home. This is like a well-ordered forest,” she said, with a sweep of her gloved hand at the acres of trees. She noticed he had hastily put aside what looked like a spray paint gun. Ya, she could see he’d been spraying some of these trees with a green paint that smelled. On closer look, some did seem a bit brown on the tips—wilted.
“Not that well-ordered. It’s a struggle. I was just touching up some of these with insecticide where a beetle’s been at them. See. They have a few dead needles, but I just knock those off.”
Though she was no expert, Lydia knew this wasn’t the time of year to be spraying for insects. And that was paint for sure, so was he doing something wrong by covering up the wilted branches? She decided she’d better not ask or let on she suspected him of lying and maybe more. For a moment, she just watched him handle two pitchforks, one in each hand as he quickly knocked dead needles off the tree. But it seemed to her the needles falling to the snow were more than a few.
“Besides,” he said, “the darn deer have been nipping the tops off seedlings on the other side of the hill, and here I am worrying about pests I can’t even see. But,” he said, stepping closer, “I’ll find a way to get rid of them.”
“Hopefully, these trees will be all right by next year.”
“They’re for this year—apartment size.”
When he frowned at her, she said in a rush, “I wanted to tell you I’m sorry about your aunt—that she died that way. I know you’ll be too busy at the funeral and meal to tell you then, but please accept our sympathy, from both Josh and me.”
Her voice broke. She shouldn’t have spoken for Josh. It almost sounded as if they were a couple. As usual, she felt awkward around Connor Stark, especially since he had a pitchfork in each hand. But he stabbed them through the snow and into the ground where they shuddered a moment, then stilled. Although Connor had been around as long as she remembered, she hadn’t been alone with him for years.
“You heard the coroner’s ruling?” he asked, examining another tree limb that looked diseased, even to her untrained eye.
“Ya. Ray-Lynn Freeman told me.”
“Whatever you hear about Victoria Keller, Lydia, we tried our best with her, but she was, to put it nicely, beyond help.”
He moved around her to examine a tree slightly up the hill as if he didn’t want her to be looking down on him. When there was no snow on the ground, he often rode a golf cart around, but he’d obviously walked here today, carrying that equipment. And if his work was all on the up-and-up, why didn’t he send one of his seasonal workers to take care of it?
“So,” he said, shaking snow from a tree bough and staring at it, “would you like a job working at the tree barn for the next couple of weeks? I know you work for your father, but Gid Reich mentioned how good you are with customers there. It would be only for a couple of hours an evening, if you want. You wouldn’t have to run the cash register. Just oversee doughnuts and cocoa, chat people up.”
“Gid suggested it? That figures. He doesn’t like me working with the Yoder animals.”
“He’s pretty sweet on you, I’d say, and probably doesn’t want you to get hurt—by the animals or the situation.”
Lydia was going to ask him what situation he was referring to, as if she didn’t know, but Connor went on, “Gid’s one of my new investors in the tree farm. I’ve taken several locals on and plan to buy more land to the north, hire on some extra help since I’m now also ‘Mr. Mayor’ and my mother’s gone a lot.”
“I thank you for the job offer, and your family has always been kind to me, but—”
“My mother, especially. Some like to help stray animals, but she is always into causes for people—in her capacity as state senator, I mean. So, you’d better be heading home.”
Connor’s words reminded Lydia about the time he’d ordered her off their property years ago. Of course, it must have been hard on him to lose a father he’d adored to an illness with the big name of multiple myeloma. He was being kind now, at least, wasn’t he? Yet she sensed an edge to him. Others had mentioned it, too—their smiling new mayor with the invisible chip on his shoulder when he seemed to have so much going for him.
“See you tomorrow, Connor. I appreciate the job offer, but no thanks.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll see you.”
Lydia did not look back as she hurried down the hill, taking small strides so she wouldn’t slip. She’d pop in to tell her mother she was heading straight for Josh’s and she was late.
Still, it was the strangest thing. Maybe it was because she thought she’d caught Connor doing something bad, but every step she took down the hill, she was certain she felt his eyes boring into her back.